In 2014, Joan Kinyanjui, 28, graduated from the University of Nairobi with a bachelor of science in agricultural economics.
She was clear about what she wanted to do – farming, a childhood interest.
“My parents, both agriculturalists, had a farm, and expected us to help with the farming and harvesting, which I enjoyed,” she begins.
To raise capital for the farming business she had in mind, she got a job as an auditor in an accounting firm, having done a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) course.
She teamed up with her boyfriend, Tony Mule, (now her husband) and started with watermelons, but over time, it became overwhelming as the crop needed more attention than they could give – they just couldn’t afford to make the required frequent visits to the farm.
“We grew the crop on a two-acre leased piece of land in Wote, Makueni County. The project cost us about Sh150,000, but unfortunately it didn’t do well, so we decided to try out something else.
Second time round, they planted tomatoes on half an acre of land, which yielded Sh70,000 having invested Sh100,000. Disappointed, they did a season’s harvest only and gave up.
“We then started researching on agricultural activities that were less time-consuming - that's how we stumbled on apiculture,” she explains.
Amazed that there were modern ways of beekeeping, the duo attended a two-hour training later that year at African Beekeepers Ltd (ABL) located in Industrial Area, Nairobi. Convinced that this was the perfect business for them, they left the training with 10 beehives, which cost them Sh50,000.
“There are different types of beehives: the traditional log hive, Kenya Top-Bar Hive and Langstroth. We settled on Langstroth because it is easier to maintain, has removable frames for easier hive inspection and adequate space between the brooding chamber and Super box, which is used for collecting honey.”
With it, she adds, you can harvest three to four times a year since you simply cut the combs without interfering with the colony.
They started their beekeeping project in Yatta, Machakos County, where Tony’s parents had an idle piece of land. Later, Joan would expand the project to Kiambu County, where she comes from. “At first, my parents were hesitant about me farming the bees at our home in Juja because they feared that they would attack people. They eventually gave me the go ahead after I explained to them that bees only attack when disturbed. I have seven hives back home,” she says.
Like with all businesses, starting out was challenging – one of the challenges was difficulty getting harvesting equipment, which they decided to import.
“When we imported a centrifuge machine, which is used to extract honey, several people approached us, wanting to know where we had sourced it from,” she says.
These inquiries are what inspired another business opportunity -that of selling honey-harvesting equipment and later, manufacturing honey products.
In 2016, the husband and wife team registered Yatta Beekeepers Ltd. The company produces value-added products such as lotions, lip balms, honey coated nuts and propolis under their brand name, Yatta. They do this on pre-order basis since they lack the capacity to do it in large scale. They also sell equipment such as beehives, plastic and stainless steel honey extractors, wax press, wax embossing machines, bee suits, hive tools, decapping knives, forks and distilling tanks. The company also offers services such as installation, pollination and site inspection. Currently, they work with 20 farmers who sell them their honey and wax, which they then repackage and resell.
In her office at her parents’ home, Joan, who resigned from her job to concentrate on bee farming, offers free training to young people interested in beekeeping. She says: “This is an interesting and profitable venture. Currently, I have 50 Langstroth hives in various parts of the country. I harvest three to four times a year, fetching around Sh250,000 per harvest. One hive produces at least 10kgs of honey.”
To attract the bees to the hives, she explains that one uses beeswax, which is placed in a groove made on the inside of each frame. One also has to ensure that the apiary is placed far from noise, human activities and pesticides. It is also recommended that the hives are at least a metre apart.
“Once you set it up, the bee colony can make the hive their home in a day, sometimes months. The worst case scenario is six months.”
Once the bees camp, the farmer should check on the hives at least once a week and oil the stands regularly to prevent odorous house ants from making their way up.
Joan markets her “pure” Yatta Honey on Facebook as well as through word of mouth.
“We pack the honey in 500gm glass containers, which we sell at Sh1,000. Although honey is imperishable, it is corrosive, and might react with plastic containers, which explains why we pack ours in glass containers.”
As with all businesses, this one too comes with its own challenges. The first is that you cannot speed the process. For instance, when bees get into the hives, you have to wait for two months for the colony to form the breeding ground and another two months to form the super box.
Also, pests can be quite a nuisance. Another challenge is the high cost of importing bee harvesting equipment.
One does not however require lots of money to get the business off the ground. With Sh5,000, you can get yourself a beehive.
In April 2018, Joan was awarded a Michigan State University fellowship through a partnership with her alma mater, University of Nairobi. It was a four-week program that saw her learn at Beewise Farms/Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.
Joan envisions Yatta Beekeepers becoming a training centre with a demonstration apiary. Presently, the company employs five - three work in farms, one runs the office, while the other accompanies her during sites visits or harvesting. She has also sub-contracted three others, who make the beehives, smokers and bee suits.